When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.
Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.”
A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation. ~ Stephen Crane, from "The Open Boat."
When I was teaching high school, a student came across this extraordinary passage while studying for the GED exam. She didn't understand it, and so we sat and unpacked it, phrase by phrase. I asked her if she had ever gone out on a clear night during the dark of the moon and stood under the night sky looking up at the stars. No, she said, she'd never done this before. I was teaching in an urban school, smack in the middle of downtown Seattle, so I suppose I wasn't surprised. But I was sad she'd never had this humbling, age-old experience.
When my grandson was very young, one of the first words he learned to say was "star." He was fascinated with the night sky. Now almost five years old, he still is. I often wonder if children, newly arrived on this planet, are not only fascinated with the night sky but also look at it with longing, as if homesick. My grandson told me just a few days ago with much authority that the moon was made of "green glowing cheese! and ROCKS, of course!" Of course, I said, how perfectly obvious.
The stars we wish upon and the moon made of cheese, or the lights of planes flying through a black sky, or the lights of houses and cities breaking the dark plains of America as one flies over on a cross-country flight - I feel small and humble when I gaze upon these things. The world feels immense, and I feel insignificant. A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.
This insignificance is oddly reassuring. It relativizes me, my ego, my daily dramas and crises that I feel are so extraordinarily urgent. It relativizes my busy-ness, my self-important tasks that keep me on the treadmill, nose to the grind. When I look at a star's light that started its journey across the universe four, five, ten, or more years before this moment in time, I'm stunned at the immensity of time and space. My own smallness is correlative to the inifinitude of our universe and all the other universes beyond that. I know the pathos of my situation.
Pathos is a complex emotional experience. It is more than suffering. It's not really suffering at all. It's the emotions that arise when we recognize the capacity of the human heart to suffer. To know and recognize the capacity to suffer opens the heart to compassion and empathy. I stand on my deck, tilt my head back as far as I can, let my eyes rest on the high cold stars in the winter night sky, and I feel a connection with every person on the planet who stands under this same sky. Who is born. Who does daily life, plugging along as best as one can. Who knows so much of what I know about living. And dying. I feel connected by the strands of light coming from a distant star dancing out there in Alpha Centauri.
I feel like this every winter as we make our way to the Solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is turned away from the sun, and the planet teeters in liminal space, the apex of the longest darkness and the turning back to light. I feel small, filled with humility, not so full of myself, no longer too big for my britches. I remember again my humanity. One in a sea of. It's exhausting carrying the weight of a demanding ego. It's good to lay that burden down every now and then. To simply be a person, stripped down to what is basic and necessary. Because then I recognize again who my truest self is, greet her again like an old friend, and I have great compassion for that small person filled with humility.
There's a great couple of lines in Thornton Wilder's moving masterpiece Our Town that also relativizes our place here on this blue planet:
Rebecca: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
George: What's funny about that?
Rebecca: But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God - that's what it said on the envelope.
I think of that ever expanding spatial concentric circle that defines each of our places in the Universe, and ultimately, in the Mind of God. Or whatever Higher Power you believe in and kneel down before. Even if it is the Mind of Reason and Law. Somewhere we are both the center of it all and just a tiny speck of dust, floating in a ray of sunshine in someone's empty parlor room. Like Horton's discovery of the small planet of Whoville on a speck of dust.
A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation. Winter's Solstice is almost here, and these are the things I think about. Some would say that my thoughts are depressing, pathetic. Depressing, no. But pathetic, yes, as in full of pathos. Full recognition that my smallest self is connected to the large heart of the world's humanity. I take great comfort in that in some of my darkest moments, and certainly in this darkest time of the year.